Sunday, September 25, 2016

Manuel Conde at 100: Genghis Khan (original 1950's version)

Manuel Conde is, in a manner of speaking, one of the pioneers of Filipino independent filmmaking. His films, made outside the influence of the studios of the day (Sampaguita, LVN, et. al.,) were imaginative, ahead of their time, and also socially conscious. Unfortunately, a lot of these films (and many films from the era) were lost to time due to inadequate systems for film presentation. The films that made it to the present day are mostly hailed as classics. To celebrate his body of work and legacy, the CCP, the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA) and the NCCA put together a short series of screenings of some of these films.

One of Conde's most well known films is Genghis Khan, released in 1950. It has the distinction of being the first Filipino film to be released in a foreign film festival. In this case, it was in Venice. The international cut of the film was  restored in recent years, but that version has English dialogue dubbed over it, and over 20 minutes was cut from the film. This screening was for the original Filipino version, and this is more or less how Filipino audiences would have viewed it in the fifties. It's recorded from an old VHS copy, and the sound is a bit spotty. Long story short, it's still a great film, and I can see why it's considered a classic.

Genghis Khan is a dramatization of the historical figure's life as he rises to power. Historical accuracy was not the aim of the film; at several times in the movie our titular hero, a Mongol, wears a Samurai kabuto as his headpiece. The movie frames him as a shrewd leader, possessing Filipino traits like utang na loob. Conde's Khan is vengeful but listens to reason, and in the end is probably not as rapey and pillagey as the real thing.

This is a film where I can't simply say that it's a product of its time. On the contrary, - its structure and themes are unique for its time period. It's a mix of comedy, drama and swashbuckling action that is uniquely Filipino. Superficially, one is tempted to compare the film to sprawling epics produced by the Hollywood studio system at the same time. One might make the mistaken judgement that this film is inferior compared to those behemoths, as the film was shot on the smallest of budgets. That judgement could not be farther from the truth. Instead, the end product is wildly entertaining, partly thanks to Conde's team of collaborators, many of them National Artists themselves. This original cut is far superior to the cut with the English voiceover - it's almost like watching a different film.

There was also a small discussion at the end of the screening, which included a short presentation on the impact of the film and comparisons to other adaptations of Genghis Khan's life, and a session with actor/director/comedian Jun Urbano, who is actually Manuel Conde's eldest son. The post screening programs were almost as entertaining as the film itself. The various clips of the other Genghis Khan adaptations includes a 40's Japanese film that could double as propaganda, a Bollywood song and dance interpretation of the material, and clips from a horrible Hollywood adaptation starring John Wayne, channeling his inner hammy Mongolian cowboy with every frame.

Today's screening was a whole lot of fun. Next week we go from Mongolia to Vietnam as the CCP screens Conde's 1956 film Krus na Kawayan.

The CCP Dream Theater will screen more films by Conde on October 1 and October 8. Admission is free.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Godzilla Resurgence

The Kaiju film genre was born with Ishiro Honda's 1954 film Godzilla; though earlier filmic examples existed in other countries, none helped plant the genre firmly into the ground more than this film. After a long hiatus, a Japanese-made Godzilla returns to the big screen - and the results are quite astonishing.

Shin Gojira, otherwise known as Godzilla: Resurgence, follows a rather simple premise on the surface: a large reptilian monster emerges from the sea and wreaks havoc as it walks through Japan. Meanwhile, the Japanese government tries to figure out a way to stop the monster before other governments decide to use drastic measures to stop it.

Godzilla Resurgence is a prime example of how a classic concept can be re-conceptualized for modern times. The original 1954 film was both monster movie and a cautionary tale warning us against excessive hubris: lessons learned by Japan after the war and the horror of the atomic bombs. Godzilla then was the personification of the dangers of nuclear energy and atomic weaponry; more a force of nature that humans can neither control nor understand completely. With the new film, we see images that strongly evoke memories of the recent Great Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, wounds still fresh in the minds of the Japanese. We see government officials covering up various things about the disaster and releasing statements to the press to save face or to try to reassure the public. We see the proliferation of videos and information on social media, something that would never have happened in the 1954 film.

And yet, even in this new context, many things still remain the same. Much of Godzilla Resurgence is framed in meetings and conferences, usually in government halls, as officials try to make sense of the entire situation. Godzilla now becomes a walking, fire spewing Fukushima nuclear disaster, and this time the film wisely places the spotlight on the Japanese government, who now becomes both Japan's greatest hero and enemy. The inefficient response of the government, and its unwillingness to break from common thinking, proves costly. The old government is shackled with traditional politics, paralyzed from decades of stagnation and shortsightedness.

One would think that a monster movie that elects to base its story on a bunch of meetings would be extremely boring, but this is hardly the case. One couldn't have picked a better pair of directors for the film. Shinji Higuchi's experiences with Kaiju and Tokusatsu productions (notably a number of Gamera movies, and the recent Attack on Titan live action adaptation) gives the film a realistic feel with a combination of miniatures and CGI.  Hideaki Anno's experience with Evangelion proves valuable here. In many ways the film's structure resembles Operation Yashima from episodes 5 and 6 of the anime, and remade in Evangelion 1.0, where the entirety of Japan collaborates to defeat an enemy. Resurgence is edited briskly, much like Anno's other live action forays, using interesting camera angles to help ratchet up the tension. This is complemented with a soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu that reminds one of both the 1954 original film and recycles certain tracks from the Evangelion soundtrack (which Sagisu also composed).

The film's themes also touch upon nationalism.  As Godzilla ravages Tokyo, it's only when a more proactive government takes over that things begin to change. The film challenges the current political system of Japan to challenge its own status quo and have a bit more political will in dealing with threats and disasters - and this includes asserting sovereignty, especially when dealing with foreign powers. It emphasizes the need for the people of Japan (and even the world) to come together in solidarity, because the filmmakers know that the Japanese are tenacious, and a world that works together can defeat even an immortal mutant dinosaur.

Godzilla Resurgence is pretty amazing, and there are many aspects to it that are uniquely Japanese. It's a worthy addition to the body of Godzilla films, a fantastic reimagining of the franchise, and a fun film overall.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016 Winners and Overall Thoughts

This year's Cinemalaya, coming out of its one year hiatus,  was a year of testing the waters. Despite the extended time of production for all the films, there wasn't really much of a noticeable difference, quality-wise, compared to other editions of the festival. With a few interesting exceptions (Kusina and the animated sections of Tuos comes to mind), there wasn't a lot of experimentation going on with the form, even with the short film entries. Also, nothing amazing really stood out this year for me, a continuing trend for Philippine Cinema.

To its credit, however, all of the films in this fest have something going for them, and even the worst films of this year's slate are better than the worst films of other editions of the festival. The festival's selection of films from its previous catalog and from other film festivals such as Cinema One Originals, Eiga Sai and QCinema were solid. The NETPAC selection of Asian films was also quite good (I saw everything except River Road, Until I Lose My Breath and Under Heaven) although their selected entries tended to be quite depressing.

I'm also glad to see lots of familiar faces in the festival, and though we rarely spoke, cinema is our common tongue. The differences of reactions for multiple films is also nice to see. Homogenous opinions are boring to me; variety keeps the discourse going.

Here are my thoughts about this year's winners. Comments are in italics.

Audience choice short feature film: Cyrus Valdez, Forever Natin 

I predicted something like this would happen, since most of the crowds going into this fest seem to be young millennials, and this film's tailor made for them and not for curmudgeonly people like myself.

Audience choice feature film: Tuos 

Never underestimate the power of Noranians. Never. Also, it helps that Tuos is such a lovely film.

Best screenplay for short film feature: Isabel Quesada, Pektus 
Best short film: Isabel Quesda, Pektus

Pektus was a quirky, clever film. I was rooting for the other two shorts that won awards last night, but this is still in my top selection.

Special jury prize, short feature film: Fish Out of Water 
Best director, short feature film: Fish Out of Water, Mon A.L. Garilao 

Fish Out of Water was my favorite out of all the shorts this year. It's technically sound, wonderfully shot, and exhibits a solid directorial hand for someone who's just starting out.

NETPAC Jury Prize, short feature film: Ang Maangas, Ang Marikit at Ang Makata

This was my second pick for this year's shorts festival, and before the awards night, there was a consensus that this would take home the best picture prize. It's a wonderful meld of different genres, and its director has a unique (very hilarious) cinematic voice. I look forward to future films.

Best sound full length feature film: Roderick Cabrido, Tuos 
Best Original Music Score Full Length: Roderick Cabrido, Tuos 
Best production design, full length feature film: Steff Dereja,Tuos 
Best cinematography, full length feature film: Mycko David, Tuos 

This year Mycko David has some impressive visual output, even with films I didn't like so much such as Iadya Mo Kami, so I thought his win in the cinematography category was well deserved. Tuos is such a poetic film, visually and aurally, that it deserved all of these technical awards. Its presentation turns the film from something simply noteworthy to something unforgettable.

Best editing, full length feature film: Carlo Francisco Manatad, Pamilya Ordinaryo
This award was no surprise as Manatad keeps the flow smooth, keeping the film energetic and far from boring.

Best performance from a supporting actor: Lou Veloso, Jun Urbano, Leo Rialp, and Nanding Josef, of Hiblang Abo 

I was wondering how they would award best supporting actor, and this is how they did it. Indeed, Hiblang Abo depended not on any single performance, but on its ensemble cast (perhaps they should have retitled the award instead?) Matt Daclan, also from the same film, would have also made a good choice in my opinion.

Best performance from a supporting actress: Elizabeth Oropesa, I, America; Lollie Mara, Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Poching 

While not a perfect film, I saw I America as an exercise in restraining the loud directorial style of Ivan Payawal's first film. Elizabeth Oropesa's role in I America was short, but her actions are the core of the movie's problems. It's a terrifically nuanced performance that's not as evil as the citation said.

As soon as I heard the opening narration of Ponching, I knew it was molded in the kind of Cinemalaya film that not a lot of people would like. But, heck, I enjoyed it anyway. The most notable character arc in the film was the story of the lola, played by Lollie Mara. She serves as the moral fulcrum of the story, an in-between for Ponching and the rest of his new family.

Best Actor: Tommy Abuel, Dagsin 

On the other hand, as soon as I saw those books at the start of Dagsin, I was already rolling my eyes. Long story short, I didn't really like the film and felt it plodding and languid. But if there's one thing I can positively say about the film, it's that Tommy Abuel's performance in this movie was amazing. I've heard comparisons of the film to Ingmar Bergman, and those comparisons are not unwarranted.

Best Actress: Hasmine Killip, Pamilya Ordinaryo

This year's selection process for Best Actress was probably an extremely hard choice, because there were so many good performances this year. There was Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo and Bela Padilla, who practically carried Kusina and I America on their respective shoulders, Pokwang, who gave a surprisingly restrained yet comedic performance in Mercury is Mine (I'd thought she'd be the dark horse to take the title) and the duo of Nora Aunor and Barbie Forteza, the best actresses in their respective generations. But Hasmine Killip was so natural in her role as Jane Ordinaryo that it's impossible not to consider her for this award.

Special Jury Prize, full-length: Mercury is Mine 
Best screenplay, full length feature: Jason Paul Laxamana, Mercury is Mine 

Immediately after seeing Mercury is Mine, the ending of the film didn't sit well with me. But it lingered. And lingered. And once I saw how the pieces fit together, I decided that I liked it. So much so, that I thought it was one of the best films in the festival. It owes this accolade because of its witty script, which is dark and funny and unpredictable at the same time.

NETPAC prize, full-length: Pamilya Ordinaryo 
Best full-length film: Pamilya Ordinaryo 
Best director, full-length film: Eduardo Roy Jr (Pamilya Ordinaryo)

I thought Pamilya Ordinaryo was the most realized of all the films in this fest. Its direction comes from a director whose previous work has been a steady increase in quality. Everything in this film just clicks together - acting, technical work, screenplay - that the output can match some of the most notable Cinemalaya films.


Now that the festival's over, here are some miscellaneous musings on the festival on its twelfth year.

The Navigator thingy was an interesting idea. The concept was to have a couple of celebrity navigators serve as facilitators on selected screenings (culminating with with a small informal chat with a few directors during the latter half of the festival. It's a nice concept, but not a lot of people knew what it really was about. Screening schedules where the two navigators would appear were posted on the information kiosk on the ground floor, but if you weren't looking, you could go through the entire festival and not come across them. The Starbucks event was actually quite nice, if only it were a bigger venue. I miss the old days when gala premieres or even minor screenings would turn into a Q and A if the director or some of the cast were present. I say keep on doing this navigator thing, but raise awareness a bit and have a lot more of them. The old Cinemalaya film forum was also a nice program that kind of disappeared in recent editions of the festival.

The Barkada Screening option this year was a really fun idea, and I hope they keep it in for future editions of the fest. I wanted to avail of the option, but I don't really have many moviegoing friends. I'm forever alone like that.

The expansion of the fest to different provinces was also very welcome, and I hope even more movie theaters show Cinemalaya films in the future. I've heard of some technical difficulties in Ayala Cebu leading to cancelled screenings, but other than that there seemed to be no problems.

The inclement weather was unavoidable; you haven't been properly initiated into Cinemalaya unless you've waded through a flood or two on the way to the CCP. (Year 8 was probably the worst weather wise, ironic given the poster and theme for that year.) 

The projectors at the CCP, especially at the main theater, were still a bit dark, which does no favors to movies that are darkly lit.

The food stalls in the CCP were quite nice. The stalls were mostly snacks and food you'd expect to eat at the movie theater (though you couldn't really bring food inside the theater unless you snuck it in.) There was a fried cheese stall that was there only for a few days, which I thought was a shame since I kind of liked the food. Best sellers (anecdotal evidence at best) included the Prince Fries stall, which was an ice tea and fries combo in one easy to bring package, the shawarma house and some of the rice in a box places. Personal favorites include the Pizzicle, which is basically a pizza on a popsicle. It surprisingly works.

But no other food stall had the massive balls to go to a film festival like Gardenia, maker of bread products. Among other snacky foods, they sold loaves of bread at the festival - the kind of bread that you can buy at a supermarket or convenience store. At first, it sounds quite baffling. At first, you'd wonder who the hell would be insane enough to buy a loaf of bread at a film festival.

A match made in heaven.

I did. And I made fucking sandwiches.

Disclaimer: this article has not been sponsored by Gardenia in any way.

That's the end of Cinemalaya 12. It's been an exhausting (but fun!) ten days. Next year is lucky number 13 for the festival. Until then, see you guys at the movies.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cinemalaya Quickies: Ang Araw Bago ang Wakas, The Kids, Curiosity Adventure and Love, Rosita, Hermano Puli

Lav Diaz's Ang Araw Bago ang Wakas (The Day Before the End) is only sixteen minutes long, but contains the same imagery and themes inherent in the director's other works. 

To me (as with his previous film Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis,) the film evokes images of art in a dying world;  where the fragility of memory and history threaten to wash away the poetry of the world around us. There are scenes of Hamlet and Julius Caesar on the streets, witnessed by bystanders who may not understand the words or the deeper meaning behind them. Its central catastrophe sees our characters wading helplessly in the rain, threatening to erase art forever. But there's something hopeful about its 'post-post apocalyptic' last frames, where the films images invoke a sense of rebirth; for the creative mind to spread its wings once more.

My favorite entry in this year's Visions of Asia showcase is Sunny Yu's The Kids. It's a drama about two individuals who end up shouldering more responsibilities than they should.

The film juxtaposes the past and present lives of this young teenage couple: back to high school days and unbridled promise and optimism - and the present time, where the realities of adult life come crashing down on them. This clever non-linear presentation bears fruit when you see the innocence and optimism of their childhood and know that things aren't going to work out as well as things should.

The two main characters, Bao-Li and Jia Jia, are both surrounded by adults that either guide them through their adult responsibilities or take advantage of their predicament. Their vulnerabilities belie the fact that although they wear adult clothes and do adult things, they are still the same two children from the start of the film. They trudge through their emotions with (or without) the emotional support of parents and other adults, which makes their ultimate decision and the final sequences of the movie all the more bittersweet and heartbreaking.

The Kids is a lovely film, excellently structured and treated with a solid directorial hand. It's a promising addition to the emerging wave of new and original Taiwanese films.

From the outset, I knew Curiosity, Adventure and Love was a very personal film and a film I think I would like. It chronicles the life and philosophy of Jessie Lichauco, a philanthropist whose many deeds helped the lives of countless Filipinos - and it all started with an almost impulsive move to a completely alien country.

This is a woman who grew up with the Philippines, a woman who saw its growing pains as it gained independence from foreign powers for the first time in more than three centuries. It is as much a story of the country as it is the person.

And yet, it's very personal, as it relates to us Jessie's life and philosophy in her own words. Much of it is very charming and quite profound. It's the sort of advice that can only come from a person who has a century's worth of memories, a lifetime of valuable experiences. Its personal touch reminds me of the Canadian documentary Stories We Tell, whose family drama hit very close to home.

The movie does not extensively tell everything about the Philippines in the 20th century perhaps due to editing constraints, and due to the circumstances of Mrs. Lichauco's life at the time there wasn't much told about the Martial Law era and the subsequent revolution, which was just as tumultuous as the time of the Second World War. But what we do get are gems, perspectives that we seldom see, since they are often lost to memory and time.

Rosita's conceit sees its titular character as a mail order bride who falls in love with her future husband's son. But the film does not  romanticize the prospect of mail order brides; the movie concedes that the process amounts to a game where people use other people for monetary and emotional gain. Instead of letting herself get used by the system, Mercedes Cabral's Rosita embraces the game and plays it to her advantage.

Its drama is grounded and not bound by flights of whimsy. Its characters move towards a natural conclusion that I thought was quite refreshing in the context of Hollywood 'happily ever after' endings. It develops its central three characters well - we've already mentioned Rosita, whose determination drives her to make a life for her family back home, no matter the cost; the father, who only wants some sort of companionship after the death of his wife, and Johannes, whose conflicting emotions begin a struggle between idealism and pragmatism. It's this conflict and his subsequent coming-of-age, that drive the story.

The film is pretty straightforward and the moments between these three characters I think are handled nicely. Exposition is scarce, but visuals and decent storytelling make up for it. The characters' desires, hopes and dreams of freedom are tempered by the reality of their situation. It's engaging stuff, and it made for good drama in this case.

Cinemalaya 2016 ends with Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli, a film 21 years in the making. It was supposed to be a finalist for last year's MMFF, but the lack of producers to produce the film led to it being pulled from the festival (Erik Matti's Honor Thy Father replaced it, which in hindsight was the best thing that could possibly happen.)

The movie is part historical biopic, perhaps with a few fictionalized elements. It tells the story of Hermano Puli, who led a major uprising against the Spanish occupation of the Philippines due to the inability of Filipinos to train for and join the clergy, and later due to a desire to practice their religion, a strange mix of pagan rituals and symbology and Christianity. It's an interesting concept of fighting for religious freedom. Unfortunately, I didn't really like the film. You can skip to the last paragraph if you want to hear something positive.

Most biopics fall into the trap of being a hagiography, and I'd expected something like that to happen to this film, but instead Hermano Puli goes in the other direction. Instead of depicting its subject as a saint, it doesn't manage to make us care for our protagonist at all. (Unless, of course, if I were a huge fan of Aljur Abrenica.) Although we do know that we should be rooting for Hermano Puli, by the end of the film I was rooting more for the Spaniards to win. There really wasn't any driving force to support the character in the script and nothing much for Aljur to work on.

The pace of the movie is absolutely languid; most of the first half consists of meetings and announcements between several groups of individuals we barely know or care about. And as anyone who has been in a meeting knows, meetings are deathly boring 90 percent of the time. Once the action kicks in, things get even more muddled; a group of Aetas come to help Puli's insurgency out of literally nowhere - they just show up with no buildup or development whatsoever and begin fighting alongside the rebels because they want to. I guess. Heck, even the elves that helped out in The Two Towers had some sort of backstory to them.

While the film thinks it's depicting Puli as a saintly, Christlike figure, the film made me see him as a misguided leader who got in way over his head. He may have some sort of religious pull over his people, but the film seems to say he was a horrible leader (he has no control over his military leaders) and tactician (his army's only tactic seems to be to charge at the enemy and scream.) While we want to root for the rebels, their actions grow even more heinous towards the end, culminating in the very Christian (this is sarcasm) practice of beheading their defeated Spanish enemies. At this point I thought of Puli and his gang to be more like the ISIS of colonial Spanish times than anything resembling heroic characters.

The script is another problem. Certain scenes between Puli and a potential love interest, Lina, are awkward and hilarious at the wrong times, full of strange innuendos. When Puli and Lina are literally being chased by the authorities, a serious moment where Puli is at risk of being PUT TO DEATH, a random double entendre pops up. FOR HUMOR. While Aljur tries his best with the material, you can only do so much; other performances range from quite decent to ridiculously hammy or silly to the point of cartoonishness.

The movie is partially salvaged by excellent camerawork by Albert Banzon and a decent musical score. Aljur is pretty decent here so if you're an Aljur fan, just disregard everything I've said before this paragraph and watch the movie to support your favorite actor. But if you want to see a proper Filipino biopic about the rise of a group of people united by faith, even (and I can't believe I am saying this) Joel Lamangan's Felix Manalo is a better watch.

And that ends Cinemalaya 2016. For the last installment of this series of reviews we'll be talking about this year's festival as a whole and the awards night.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cinemalaya Quickies: Sarong Banggi, EDSA, 4 Days

Aside from a few visual details, it's hard to tell that Emmanuel Dela Cruz's Sarong Banggi was a product of the very first Cinemalaya film festival. Its neon infused visuals of Manila at night are both familiar and nostalgic as Alfredo Lim shut down most of the stalls and bars along Baywalk during his term.

But it's the character interactions that make Sarong Banggi shine. The movie finds its flow when Jacklyn Jose and Angelo Ilagan's characters are just made to just say their minds, and in the most memorable scene in the movie, both characters make up stories about passers by. It boils down to how all of us have stories to tell. There's a (made up, but relevant) term for this, that you may have encountered in one of my previous reviews last year: sonder - the realization that every passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The revelations during the second half of the film were quite shocking, but not fully unexpected. It does give substance to the young boy's attachment and/or fascination with Jacklyn's character. In a way, perhaps this boy saw Jacklyn and made up a story of his own, not knowing that it may be closer to the truth than expected.

The ending does drag a bit, and makes the flow of the last third of the film a bit rough. But the heartbreak of these moments, implied or not, still ring true.

Alvin Yapan's EDSA is a lean film but it packs a lot of ideas into such a small frame. Unlike other films where the idea of the People Power revolution is in the spotlight, Yapan decides to approach the famed street as it is now, where there is little to remind us of those days, where stories of peaceful revolution are relegated to fading memories and old war stories.

Today's EDSA reflects our hopes and aspirations as a people, the road representing (even visually, thanks to an inspired matching cut) our desire for miracles, saviors and change, something we felt during this year's presidential election. Its many disparate stories are the stories of our people, struggling to make a living, ignorant of the plight of others, forced by circumstance.

Despite this, EDSA has a somewhat hopeful tone. In visuals and concept it's both an answer and homage to Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag, where the city is a monster that devours its citizens whole. Yapan's EDSA  gives the impression that we, the Filipino people, still have the capacity to do good.

While I don't think the film completely manages to tie things together with its central theme, there's still a lot to like in this film. There's also an element of strangeness to the film, perhaps magical realism, that's also present in most of Yapan's other work. It deserves a second viewing to unearth the multiple levels of meaning Yapan has infused into the film.

The movie is politically neutral, and wants to show us that right now, it's no longer about political affiliations or families or 'colors'  in the political spectrum. We can claim EDSA as a symbol of hope for ourselves as a people. It teaches us not to rely on saviors and strongmen to make our miracles for us - we can do that on our own., and that's something I think we need given recent events.

Adolfo Alix has made a wide variety of movies in his career, both mainstream and non-mainstream. It's safe to say that very few of his movies are alike. This time, he takes a look at the evolution of a relationship between two men.

4 Days takes place during four Valentine's days, where we see a relationship develop between a young man and his roommate through its many peaks and valleys. The film frames the holiday of love as major points in the relationship between the two. Alix captures these moments with long takes, and lays the heartbreak and longing of its main characters bare by lingering on their emotions. Exposition and implication help fill in the gaps.

With this film Alix eschews the familiar stereotypes in pink/LGBTQ films where you have to have some sort of sex scene and everything feels exploitative and melodramatic. Its treatment is neither garish nor exploitative, and that's something I appreciated from this film. It treats its characters tenderly, like real people with their own complex set of hangups and insecurities. Gay or straight, these are moments in a relationship that we can all relate to in some form or another.

The sound design is a bit spotty at times (perhaps due to the length of some takes), but otherwise is technically sound, with beautiful DOP work from Albert Banzon. The acting is relatively solid (there's a part in the script about ketchup that sounds quite silly but makes sense in context) but Mikoy Morales is the standout performance in this film, especially during the film's climax. 

The film ends with a rousing emotional moment, the whole film building up to it. It's a moment that has been earned, without melodramatics or forced emotional conflict. It's flow is organic and natural instead of artificial - a sin a lot of romantic films tend to commit.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cinemalaya Quickies: Child of Debt, The Stranger, Iadya Mo Kami

Child of Debt is pretty straightforward as far as plots go. A father and child live in a farming village somewhere in India. Dad dies, and child is left with the father's debt of 300 RS. It's a grave problem that's suffered by millions of Indian farmers, and debt (among other things) is one of the reasons so many of them commit suicide.

The innocence of childhood soon gives way to the harsh realization that our main character, Subba, is for all intents and purposes a slave to his masters, and his fate had been decided when his father died. There are no more dreams to dream. Subba does not rebel against his masters; he follows dutifully, sometimes more than his masters deserve. 

Things eventually boil down to a rather rushed conclusion (though to be fair, by that time, anything more and it would have devolved into over the top melodrama) and a dedication to a man trying to stop this phenomenon of debt from happening. Child of Debt presents its social cause plainly and at least that's enough to get a message through.

Zhat (or Xat), meaning The Stranger, is a film about Kazakhstan in the thirties to the fifties. A man escapes the Soviet Collectivization campaigns during those times by moving into the forest and becoming a man of the wild. Unfortunately this serves to alienate him from the community he left and any chance he had to live a normal life.

Our protagonist, Ilyas, represents the innocent lives lost during the conflict. He represents the struggle of the people who chose not to take sides during the many conflicts that took place during this period. In the meantime, his fellow village folk took sides and were drafted into a war some of them didn't want. And it was a greviously costly war. The cost of human life to the Kazakh people in the early part of the century thanks to conflicts in the neighborhood reached 5 million.

While our main character struggles to survive and fit into a post war milieu, there truly is no place for him anymore by the time the war is over. His only connection is an uncle who gives him moral support as he goes about his life, but in essence he is truly alone.

The timeline jumps forward at points and may be a bit confusing if you're not paying attention. Its pace is also slow for those who were looking for something a bit faster paced. Subtitles are not a literal translation, and disappear at parts. But The Stranger is interesting cinema, watching the tragic life of a man whose only wish was to live life free.

Hours after watching Iadya Mo Kami and I still have no idea what it was all for. It's part melodrama, part predictable murder mystery (based on the camerawork, the culprit is made obvious soon after the crime is committed) and part weirdness.

A priest (Allen Dizon) is sent to a remote village in the mountains because he fathered a child with someone else (Diana Zubiri). He then becomes involved in a murder involving one of the town's rich people (Ricky Davao). Of course comes the realization that he's not the only person with a dark past.

The movie is nicely scored and shot really nicely. It's the script that threw me into a loop. Most of the dialogue seems unrealistic and at times even weird. One dialogue in particular has our characters talking about the hierarchy of shit, which probably sounds better on paper than in practice. Many times I could hear the audience laughing inappropriately at dialogue that's supposed to be serious.

While I see that the movie is trying to make a point on how the world is an evil place, and that people are shades of gray, it doesn't express that sentiment very well. Pope Francis is also in the movie (archival footage, but still) for some reason and feels shoehorned in. And the resolution of the murder mystery is ultimately unsatisfying with twists that feel like melodrama and over the top evil antics that feel like a movie from the nineties. (Take note that a child was somehow present during this screening, which was kinda more disturbing than what was going on screen.)

Iadya Mo Kami led me in circles for almost two hours. While technically sound, by the end of the film I felt I went nowhere. I guess that could have been the point.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: Pamilya Ordinaryo, Mina Walking

Pamilya Ordinaryo's sequence of scenes sees our two protagonists, Jane and Aries, go forth in search of their missing baby. Its treatment is voyeuristic, detached, especially in the scenes where our characters' actions are seen through the screen of a CCTV camera. It parallels our society's general callousness towards these individuals, seeing them as things to exploit other than genuine people, a dark mirror reflected in the mise en scene.

Throughout the movie Jane and Aries seek help from a number of individuals who look at them with the same detachment as the CCTV cameras that capture them. They are discriminated, ignored, and cast aside in favor of other, more favorable things.

Aries and Jane are excellently acted, spewing invective that is more bluster than real bravura, as they cower and submit to authorities higher up than themselves in the societal food chain. Hasmine Killip's Jane is particularly of note, exhibiting frustrating naivete balanced with a strong motherly instinct.

The shackles of the social systems that make up our society as a whole are evident in full force here, a defining characteristic of many films with social realist themes. Despite their best efforts the system is rigged against Aries and Jane, and their cause may have been doomed from the start. From a metafictional standpoint, even though the film talks about the exploitation of the poor, the filmmakers treat them as they are: vulnerable people as 'ordinary' as the rest of us.

Mina Walking is composed of tones both hopeful and pessimistic, and limns the struggle of women in war-torn Afghanistan. Its titular character is doggedly determined to survive among wolves. 

The Taliban regime wrecked the nation, and the subsequent American occupation didn't do it many favors, either. Its citizens are forced to live in poverty, getting addicted to drugs to ease the pain, engaging in small time businesses. Mina's struggle is not only her struggle, it's also the struggle of her people. It's a struggle to gain proper education in a nation that has denied women of this right for years. It's a struggle of self determination where others had previously determined her rights and self worth.

It takes place in hopeful times, where a democratic election seeks to give the people a voice for the first time in years. It has an undertone that while things change slowly, and while the status quo may be around for a while, things can change with hard word and patience.

Mina's sacrifices at the end seem to be an abandonment of dreams, but I can see it as more of a way to cut losses in hope for the future. It's a statement of independence against a system that seeks to cage her and make her live a life that is not hers. 

The production is slick, with camera work going for more of a realistic handheld style (some shots are the way they are for safety reasons more than anything else.) Performances, especially of the film's titular character, are solid. 

It's a film that makes you want to feel just a little hope. To me the film says that the world may be full of crap, but as long as you're still alive, you can make your life something worth living in.